Twentieth Century Blues: The Songs of Noel Coward

By Walters, Barry | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), June 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Twentieth Century Blues: The Songs of Noel Coward


Walters, Barry, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


It makes perfect sense that the Red Hot AIDS Charitable Trust--the British equivalent of our own Red Hot Organization, the musical AIDS charity launched with Red Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter--would salute Noel Coward. England's own Porter, Coward was a theatrical songwriter of nearly unbeatable sophistication who managed to craft melodies every bit as indelible, wit-crazy, and classy as his eminently quotable lyrics.

Like Porter, Coward was gay and in the professional closet yet wrote from a perspective that seems as obviously queer as any of today's out and proud homos. He wrote of hidden obsessions, societal hypocrisies, nightlife escape, and estranged longing with an insight that still seems modern, that still makes sense for the mainstream while telling our stories from the inside of the outside. Any writer who slips a line into a hit song like "He has a gay appeal that makes me feel there's maybe something sad about the boy" was clearly aware of what he was doing, even if the status quo wasn't.

Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys is perhaps Coward's closest pop peer, and so it makes perfect sense that he'd be behind an album (available only as an import) that presents the composer quite convincingly as the archetypal English pop icon, the forerunner of the Beatles, David Bowie, and the Pets themselves. Working on his own musical with collaborator Chris Lowe, Tennant casts the album as would an astute director. Some of his Anglo-only choices may be unfamiliar to most Americans (Texas, Space, ex-Take That band member Robbie Williams, comedian Vic Reeves), but this is appropriate for one of the most intrinsically English songwriters, ever. A lineup that includes Elton John, Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, Michael Nyman, and Sting can afford to take chances. …

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